et us introduce you to seven ordinary Americans. A good mother, a retired principal, a man who runs a bicycle shop. Just regular folks whose stories, odds are, you won't see on prime-time television. But there is something that sets them apart: when it comes to the environment, these everyday heroes aren't content to sit back and do nothing. One bought a wind turbine, one filmed life in Cancer Alley, and one has been swimming for weeks on end -- all to make the country a little better for the rest of us. Exactly our idea of what heroism really means.
The Long Hauler
by Patty Wentz
On June 4, Christopher Swain began a rather unusual journey. That's the day he squeezed into a hooded black drysuit and jumped into the headwaters of the Columbia River. His plan is to freestyle the entire 1,243 miles of the river -- from Canal Flats, British Columbia, to Astoria, Oregon -- in order to call attention to the environmental troubles of the river that defines the Northwest.
Swain, a thirty-four-year-old Portland, Oregon, resident, is a triathlon-trained athlete, and this is not his first "advocacy swim." In 1996, he swam the lower 210 miles of the Connecticut River in support of universal human rights. That feat, he says, taught him two things: "People pay attention when you get into the water, and when you get out of the water they want to know what you found there."
Even though he can't see what's there, Swain knows he's swimming through swirls of sediment laced with the runoff of decades of river industrialization -- dioxins from paper mills, heavy metals from mining, and PCBs from the electric transformers of fourteen hydroelectric dams. He'll also swim through sewage and even nuclear waste (near the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington State). What really keeps him up at night are the pesticides, many of which are neurotoxins. "But if you want to advocate for water," he says, "you gotta get wet." The Canadian Broadcasting Company is running regular updates on his progress. So is a heavy metal radio station in Portland, Oregon.
In Swain's mind, the pollution and the dams, not to mention depleted salmon runs and a dying estuary, are good reasons for spending five hours and ten miles a day in water as cold as 38 degrees. "It's too much for people," he says, "so they tune it out. Just Hanford alone is enough to put anyone over critical mass. We only protect and restore things we have a relationship with, so I have an idea to put the river in the public eye. That's why I'm swimming."